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Outside the Lines: Who's Got Game

Here's the transcript from Show 46 of Outside The Lines- Who's Got Game.

Host -Bob Ley, ESPN.
Story reported by -Lisa Salters, ESPN.
Guests -David Stern, NBA commissioner; Michael Wilbon, columnist, Washington Post..
Coordinating producer -Jonathan Ebinger, ESPN.

Bob Ley, host - It's a simple question, but a critical one. What's wrong with the NBA? There are answers from a coach.

Nate McMillan, Seattle SuperSonics head coach - The bottom line is I think coaches and management need to get more control over the players.

Ley - From a future Hall of Famer.

Karl Malone, Utah Jazz forward - When I'm done, I'm taking all my memories, and I'm never going to be involved with the NBA anymore.

Ley - And a surprising rookie.

Marc Jackson, Golden State Warriors center - A lot of people are saying, "Hey, we want a number one championship," instead of saying, "Now we can talk money." So things are changing. Things are changing quickly.

Ley - One man is at the center of this whirlwind. Today on Outside The Lines, we speak with Commissioner David Stern on the tumult in the NBA. "Who's Got Game?"

Announcer - Outside The Lines is presented by State Farm Insurance. Joining us from ESPN Studios, Bob Ley.

Ley - First, what's right with the NBA on this All-Star weekend? After all, this is the league that did teach sports so much. But the marketplace is truly global, that white America will embrace a, quote, black game, and that a salary cap, along with a guarantee for the players of a percentage of the gross, will bring some cost certainty to a sport.

But that's not the conversation about the NBA, not this season, not this All-Star Sunday. The league is straddling a cultural and generational divide, its players, products of the hip-hop culture, the stars with whom the NBA must sell season ticket and corporate sponsorships.

One MVP candidate has been called on the carpet over his rap lyrics. And another, his team leading the weStern conference, talks openly of playing elsewhere next year.

An owner has been suspended for a season, his team stripped of top draft picks for an attempted end run around the league salary cap. Attendance is down slightly, TV ratings more so.

Is this league merely suffering by comparison with its brilliant recent past? Or is something more basic wrong with the NBA?

Well, in a moment I'll be talking live with Commissioner David Stern. But first, Lisa Salters examines this league through the eyes of those on the floor.

Lisa Salters, ESPN correspondent - Will the real National Basketball Association please stand up? Is it the league in which Allen Iverson hurls insults at fans as well as he splits defenders? Or is it the one that features that same guy as the spark plug of the team that so far has the best record in the league.

How about the league whose defending championship team has two star players who publicly call each other out of shape and selfish? Or is it the one in which those same two star players have combined for almost 2,500 points, more than any other duo in the league?

Unidentified Male - Sprewell, (expletive deleted) that (expletive deleted)!

Salters - Suffering from a severe case of split personalities, the NBA and its evil twin have already had their shares of highs and lows this season. Even 16-year veteran Karl Malone can't seem to make up his mind whether he's still a fan of the game or just plain fed up.

Malone - I was so frustrated I said, "When I'm done, I'm taking all my memories and I'm never going to be involved with the NBA anymore."

But the last probably month-and-a-half, two months, I say to myself the guys who played before me didn't do that, even though probably at times they wanted to.

Unidentified Male - Here it is, Karl, underhand scoop, there it is. Kabammo! The second leading score in the history of the game...

Salters - In December, just one week after surpassing Wilt Chamberlain for the number two spot on the all-time leading scorers' list, the mailman delivered some unkind words to the NBA about how he believes the game has changed.

Malone - I don't know where to start. Just attitudes. It's not a love for what you do. It's not a respect level for the game like it used to be.

Salters - Judging from the empty seats and slipping television ratings, fans may agree. You think the league is in a funk?

Malone - Well...

Salters - Has some image problems?

Malone - ... oh, come on now. Ain't no doubt, I think so. All you've got to do is pick up the paper. And every time you turn around now, it's something going on about an athlete.

Unidentified Male - Champy hits his own coach by accident.

Salters - While the negative images capture our attention, there was one incident this season that caught the already disillusioned Malone off guard, the mini-mutiny in Denver of players against their coach and GM Dan Issel.

Malone - That was a bone-head play. Just one more thing that they say that we're all a bunch of spoiled athletes. You don't do that. It's like that's your coach, and you're going to stick with your coach no matter what. And you're sure not going to try to get him fired.

Salters - But that's exactly what happened in Seattle when perennial all-star Gary Payton publicly showed his disaffection for head coach Paul Westphal. Less than one week later, Westphal was fired, replaced by assistant coach Nate McMillan.

McMillan - The bottom line is I think coaches and management need to get more control over the players. I think the players have had -- in the '90s, the players have really had too much control and say-so over teams.

Salters - Like Malone, the 36-year-old McMillan was known for his work ethic during his NBA playing days. He, too, believes many of the league's image problems stem from its youth, the "me generation" of athletes.

McMillan - Now you have these young guys coming in. And all they want to do is -- or are concerned about is me, one-on-one, cross-over, isolation, give it to me. It's all about me. It's not about we, or this team.

Unidentified Male - Certainly, he's capable of doing heroic things. But look at this. There's three guys there.

Malone - I think it has a lot to do with guys coming out early. It has a lot to do with the leeway you give them in colleges. Some of them are not even going to college.

I know it will never happen. But it will be a great start in the right direction if no matter what before you enter the NBA, you have two years of some kind of college.

Salters - McMillan's solution, get rid of long-term contracts.

McMillan - If you had a one-year deal and you knew you had to be on your best behavior for that one year, you won't go out and do these things. You'll play hard. You'll be at practice on time. You'll do all the things that you need to do because you'll know your contract is up next year.

Malone - I agree with that also. I know people are not a big fan of the XFL, some people are not. But if you don't play, you don't get paid. Well, that will never get to this extreme, but I think it's a good start. I like it.

Salters - Both Malone and McMillan agree that somewhere along the line many players seem to have forgotten that wearing an NBA uniform was once considered a privilege. While Malone says he wants to be supportive of the league, he's reluctant to leave the house wearing anything with an NBA logo on it these days simply because, as he says, he doesn't want to put out the fires of criticism that come with being recognized as an NBA player. But not all of the league's young talent has lost sight of how fortunate they are.

Jackson - Three years in Europe just did a lot for me.

Salters - This time last year, the Golden State Warriors' Marc Jackson was warming up in freezing cold arenas in Turkey. The 27-year-old rookie spent three years playing overseas.

Jackson - You just don't know how good you've got it -- you really don't -- until you can see what goes on in other countries.

Salters - He's now one of the players mentioned for Rookie of the Year honors.

Jackson - I was fortunate to be in the NBA, just to be able to travel. There may be long road trips here and there. But you're traveling in America.

Salters - There goes the NBA's Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde routine again. The Warriors may have Marc Jackson, a guy who seems to appreciate every minute he has on the floor. But they also have Mookie Blaylock, who just this past week was stripped of his captain's status for skipping a team practice to play golf.

For Outside The Lines, I'm Lisa Salters.

Ley - Well, to help us consider that question and others, we welcome from Washington the commissioner of the NBA now in his eighteenth year in that job, David Stern.

Good morning, David.

David Stern, NBA commissioner - Good morning.

Ley - I know you're tired of stereotypes about your league and about your players. And you're fond of saying that your league reflects society. But when you hear a couple of lifers like Nate McMillan and Karl Malone, who've spent their adult lives in this league, say there's a problem, isn't there a problem?

Stern - Well, there's a problem if they're saying there's a problem.

Ley - And what is that problem to your mind?

Stern - Well, the problem is that whenever you have a league full of human beings, there are going to be some falls from grace. And people will comment on that.

But you're a follower of the league. If I came back into the archives of ESPN and wanted to do a piece on the history of the NBA and I wanted to focus on the fact that Magic Johnson got his coach fired, that Michael Jordan got thrown out of a game for bumping an official, that Larry Bird and Dr. J., all of revered and blessed memory, actually got into a fistfight in a game, I could put that same piece together with respect to any part of the NBA's history.

Ley - But you hear about it more and more now, though, David.

Stern - Of course I do, because when those guys...

Ley - Because there's more media?

Stern - ... when those guys were doing it, I believe I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't have a job at ESPN because it didn't exist. There were four million homes on cable.

Now you've got an apparatus there that is designed to compile the kinds of things that you're designing. It's a fair point. Those are happening.

Karl is like old faithful. He goes off every so often. Sometimes he goes off saying he doesn't want to come to an All-Star game. Sometimes he says he does. Sometimes he says the league is great...

Ley - But let's talk about Nate. We know Karl is excitable. But...

Stern - I'll tell you what, Bob. If I don't interrupt you, how about you not interrupting me, OK?

Ley - Fair enough, fair enough.

Stern - OK, but I'll stop now. Go ahead.

Ley - OK, David, I appreciate it. But is this a function of age? And I know you'd like...

Stern - Mine or yours?

Ley - ... no, the age of players in your league and an age limit, which I assume you'd like to have, and you'll have to negotiate with Billy Hunter.

Stern - I'd like to have an age limit. But I want to be a little more protective of our players, OK? I think Nate McMillan has gone over to the other side. I'd like to become an agent representing players against that kind of an attitude.

Players who work as hard as our guys work to get to the NBA are entitled to have contracts of longer than a year. And if anyone thinks that the answer is a coach sitting down saying -- and I love Nate McMillan and what he's doing in Seattle -- that the answer is we have to put these guys under our thumbs, well, then he should go coach in another league because that's not the way it is in society. And that's not the way it's going to be in the NBA.

We have to set standards. We have to set levels of expectations. And we have to treat our players like dignified human beings that we are. And this stereotyping, even by someone like Nate McMillan, to me is just silly.

Now that doesn't mean that we should tolerate misconduct because we have some great examples to set here. And we can do a good job. It doesn't mean that we should encourage the me, me, me that we see all around us.

But when I see a lifer like Nate McMillan do that, I think boy that's a good sound bite. But I don't buy it.

Ley - You don't buy it? He coaches. He's with these players. He controls playing time. They're...

Ley - ... He's closer to the game than you are on a night-in-night-out basis.

Stern - He's not closer to the game than I am. I've been around this game for 35 years. And if he does his job, he can -- with the support of his ownership, which I'm sure he has and will continue to have -- then he can be a good coach.

And we have lots of coaches who get the most of out of their players, the players enjoy playing for them, without these epic pronunciamentos as to how we have to treat our players as some kind of automatons.

Now, we need standards. And I'm all for that. And yes, our guys are a little young sometimes. And maybe an age limit would be a good idea.

But when I see stuff like that -- you know, Karl Malone, who I met with yesterday, who was feeling a lot more mellow than that piece indicates and feeling very good about his association, has been terrific for this league.

But everybody knows Karl. He's quotable. And he's good for some good ideas. But the notion not said by him directly but said by your reporter that he doesn't go out of his house wearing NBA paraphernalia because he doesn't want to be associated with that, I don't believe it.

Ley - Well, he did say it. We just did not include that particular sound bite in the report. I've seen the tape.

Stern - Well, after I get off the air, you can bring that one up and show it to your audience if you have it, OK?

Ley - OK. Let's talk about your suggestion, your proposal, $20,000 loans to college players, pre-pros, as you've called them, to encourage them to stay in school, give them some walking around money, loans that would be forgiven if they make it into the NBA.

Can you explain how you think that induce somebody to take that money and forego for several years the idea of becoming an instant millionaire?

Stern - No, no, it wouldn't induce them to do that. But if we were to have a rule that said that you couldn't come into the NBA until you're 20, then the idea that kids might go to school and not have enough money while they're in school to enjoy walking around, I think it behooves us to make sure that they have a fair amount in their hands so that they don't have to press their nose up against the glass and be left out of the college scene by not being able to buy pizza or have car fare or go visit their family. And I think that that would be a good approach by us and the NCAA.

I mean, what we're dealing with here is a situation where kids who get scholarships wind up without the means to do anything else while they're in school.

Ley - You said you had a meeting, the labor meeting, with Billy Hunter on Friday, and that it felt good because you were getting beaten up by owners and players on the same issue. You felt a sense of cooperation in the room. What were the issues on which you were getting beat up jointly?

Stern - It wasn't a labor meeting. It was a meeting of owners and players to discuss areas of common concern about the things we're discussing here, about player misconduct, about image, about youngsters in the league, about what we can do for community relations, to I think in part re-ignite the historic partnership between the NBA and its players.

And it was just a good meeting amongst a bunch of very sensitive people. And I really do believe that our players for the most part are the best players in sport in terms of their community involvement and their concern for the game.

But I'm sure that you could always find, you could string together some quotes to make it seem as though the sky was falling.

Ley - TV, you've got a $2.6 billion contract. It's probably time to start talking about re-upping it. Given the downturn in ratings, which is true across the board in sports television, what are your chances of renewing that at an increase?

Stern - Excellent. Excellent.

Ley - Why?

Stern - And despite this piece, we'd even consider talking to your parent company.

Ley - Was the piece unfair?

Stern - No, nothing is unfair. It's accurate in all of his components -- it's accurate as far as it goes.

Ley - OK.

Stern - I mean, basically I'll tell you, what we think is we think our prospects are great. We are a sport where 40 million people -- it's the most played sport in the United States as a team sport, boys and girls alike.

The game today is going to be shown in 206 countries. The WNBA is developing a fan a minute, all kinds of new basketball fans. There will be a new development league in November. And the NBA is at the top of its game technologically speaking.

We can't forget the game itself. We're focusing on ways in which we can make some I think minor corrections to the rules to make the game a little bit more appealing. And we have the most recognized, best athletes in the world playing a great game.

On that basis, I'm very optimistic that of all sports, we're very well positioned for a significant increase in our rights fees.

Ley - We've got about 20 seconds. You joked about renaming the league the XBA. But if you're game tonight is out-rated by last night's XFL game, does that concern you?

Stern - No. It will be. Our games on cable are regularly out-rated by WWF. And you're regularly out-rated by something called "Survivor," "Big Brother," "Temptation Island," and a lot of other programming that you and I in private moments would admit was not the highpoint of television.

Ley - David, it's always fun chatting with you. Thanks a great deal for taking the time this All-Star Weekend.

Stern - Thank you for having me. Bye-bye.

Ley - Thanks, David Stern.

Next up, I'll be speaking with a columnist so unhappy with the NBA he has given up his season tickets on Outside The Lines.

Ley - We continue examining the NBA. And I'm joined today by "Washington Post" columnist Michael Wilbon.

Michael, I had mentioned you had said this in print this week. You had given up your season tickets a couple of years ago. Why?

Michael Wilbon, Washington Post columnist - Well, that has a lot to do with locally the basketball team, the Washington Wizards, which has had one playoff appearance in about 12 or 13 seasons now, and the expensive tickets also.

I mean, obviously as a working member of the media, I attend games with a press credential, particularly when I'm writing or working on a piece. But in terms of the basketball that I'm seeing now, two things.

Clearly again, the Washington Wizards' situation is not a competitive one. The team has not been very good on the court in years, in really 20 years. They've been not competitive probably 15 or 16 of those.

But also, the team basketball element is missing for me. I'm 42 years old. I don't necessarily connect with some of the things I see in the game today. I see a lot of individual stars. As always, the NBA still has those.

But I think the team basketball and the way the game is played, perhaps the way it's officiated, not seeing the open play, not seeing the actual skill of the players that we know is evident. And I think that perhaps the game itself needs some tinkering.

Ley - I realize we're two members of the media talking to each other. But listening to David Stern over the past week as he's come up to All-Star weekend, I think the league's position is turning into, a fair amount of this perception is a media creation while indeed individual people can talk about the problem.

What's your take on this? How much of it is a media creature? And how much of it is truly reality?

Wilbon - I mean, clearly there's some of both. I mean, most of the people in the media reporting these stories are in their thirties, forties and fifties. And it's easy to romanticize in any industry what you really loved in your youth. And by youth, I mean even in young adult stages.

But they're clearly, when you listen to guys like Karl Malone, I've talked to Karl Malone. I've talked to Reggie Miller. You listen to Charles Oakley. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, you can go on and on and on about the generation of players that we have not yet let go of as fans and chroniclers of a terrific basketball generation.

When you listen to those people, they are not media. And they have these same concerns. And David Stern alluded to that.

We talked about the sensitivity of the people in that room to what is going on in basketball. Some of it is, however, a media creation. Some of it is people in our industry, Bob, not comfortable with what they see from young players.

And that may be the stereotyping that David Stern is talking about that all of us talk about when we're talking about cultural issues -- cornrows, tattoos, what we perceive when you're in your thirties and forties and fifties as conduct that is different from the people that we admired when we were younger.

So you've got a lot of things in this mix. Some of his concerns are legitimate. But I think clearly some of the criticisms are very legitimate also.

Ley - This is a piece of tape I'd like to play for you. It's Nate McMillan, coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, describing a conversation he overheard after his team took a very bad loss.

McMillan - We've had players on a losing -- you just lost a game. And I'm talking about you just got blown out. And I've heard a guy on the telephone talk about a donkey hat, just watch ESPN tonight. It just blew me away.

Ley - So you can say, well, it's a young player. He doesn't understand the team concert. You can say it's the media because "SportsCenter" puts on the highlights. And so you can point your finger in five different directions coming out of a perception like that.

Wilbon - Well, you can. And I think that that's the concern you also heard Karl Malone and older veteran players talk about. I think -- I would not agree with Nate McMillan that you have to have single-year contracts.

And I think that -- but it can be somewhat of a disincentive. And people will say, well, pro football has guaranteed contracts in the form of their large signing bonuses. No $8 million or $9 million signing bonus is going to be equivalent to a $76 million guaranteed contract.

I think at some point there is some disincentive. I know that in some quarters of the league, though not with David Stern as we heard earlier, there is some concern about the length and the size of guaranteed contracts and what that means to young players.

I don't know how much of this -- I don't think very much of this, Bob, is exclusive to the NBA. I mean, I think we're talking about the larger culture here. No matter what industry we're talking about, we can be talking about journalism in our industry and what 22-year-old kids coming out of school expect from their careers right now.

They expect meteoric rise instantly. And the more money that's out there, the more disincentive those of us see who have been around for a while.

But what Nate McMillan talked about, you can find that with any team in the league. And I agree there should be an age limit. There's no question about this.

And I know Billy Hunter if he was sitting here, or somebody from the union, would disagree. There needs to be one.

If you look at the NFL, one reason they're not in a longer malaise after losing people like John Elway and Dan Marino and Steve Young in a year's time is that they're able to replace -- and I don't mean that the new stars are those guys. But they are able to bring into the league people who have played quarterback and looking at the marquis position in that sport for four years in college.

It is not just marketing. It's finishing your apprenticeship. It's coming into the league -- forget about college and education -- understanding and learning how to be a professional and what you do primarily, which is play this particular sport.

When you see kids coming in after high school -- and clearly we have to acknowledge Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, true stars. But there are so many others we've forgotten about, the Leon Smith, who never make the leagues, who can't stay in the leagues, who can't be of impact in this league.

I think that the league -- and clearly the $25,000, or $20,000 loan, I think that's a step in the right direction. I don't know if it's the answer. But they're going to have -- the union is going to have to address this issue.

Ley - Well, you've laid them all out. And I appreciate it. Thanks, Michael Wilbon, for joining us this morning.

Wilbon - Thanks for having me.

Ley - And next up, we will have the feedback on our midseason look at the National Hockey League as we continue Outside The Lines.

Ley - The National Hockey League was our topic last week, including its profitability, its popularity, and challenges.

Now for just a sampling of some e-mail reaction, a viewer from New York writes - "Like the three other major professional sports leagues, the biggest problem plaguing the NHL is over-expansion. Existing owners view expansion as an easy way to get richer quick when they split a new franchise's entrance fee.

"Unfortunately, their greed blinds them to the obvious ramifications of over-expansion. Each expansion team added to the NHL means there are 20 more players on NHL rosters who previously were not good enough to compete in the league. The owners' pockets get bigger in the short-term, while they foolishly hurt their product for the long-term."

And from Rockport, Massachusetts, a viewer disappointed that none of the guests brought up the fact the NHL teams need to cover rising expenses with attendance revenues and causing the ticket prices to increase significantly. "It's gotten to the point many NHL market's now devoted fans, such as this writer, can no longer afford to attend games on a regular basis. The very people who support the league the most are being alienated from the game they love. The NHL and the Players Union should keep this in mind the next time they have to negotiate a new contract."

The interactive Outside The Lines is at your fingertips online. Type the keyword otlweekly on the ESPN front page. You'll be able to browse the complete library of both transcripts and streaming video of all the Sunday morning Outside The Lines programs, as well as a page to send your e-mail comments, suggestions, and criticisms. Our address -

Ley - A reminder, this program re-airs on the deuce, ESPN2, at 12:30 Eastern. And ahead today, the big league hitting challenge and skills competition live at 5:00 Eastern. National Hockey Night tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Dallas and St. Louis.

But now, last night's college basketball, complete highlights of the NBA slam dunk and three-point contest. Chris McKendry, Brian Kennedy and "SportsCenter."

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